visiting Taiwan: a guide on what to expect

what to expect when you visit Taiwan: a brief explanation of the island's history and culture, as well as advice on languages, restrooms, food, temple etiquette, hiking, cycling and more

what should I expect when I visit Taiwan?

for the final installment in my tips for visiting Taiwan series, I want to answer a few questions about what to expect during your time in Taiwan. many people [myself included] haven't had much education on Taiwan, and can be pretty clueless before they arrive. below I've tried to give you some background on Taiwan, answer the random questions I usually receive about life here, and give a few helpful hints I wish someone had told me as a newbie in this country.

a complicated history

while the island of Taiwan has been inhabited by indigenous tribes for thousands of years, the modern world first discovered it in 1544. Portugese sailors were the first Europeans to land here, and called Taiwan the Ilha Formosa, meaning "Beautiful Island." Formosa was then colonized by both the Dutch and Spanish before Chinese forces claimed the island in the late 1600s. Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese in 1895, until the end of World War II. at this time, the established Republic of China government in mainland China was fighting a civil war against Mao Zedong and the communist uprising. the ROC government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, established itself in Taiwan in 1949 after relinquishing control of mainland to Mao and the communists [who established a new government called the People's Republic of China or PRC.]

it gets even more complicated from there. in the second half of the 20th century Taiwan went through several bloody events, government corruption, a fallout with the UN, and the eventual rise of democracy. though some in China claim Taiwan is still a territory of the PRC, and some in Taiwan claim that mainland is property of the ROC, both have been operating as an independent nations since 1949. Taiwan's government is now democratically elected, they have their own currency [the New Taiwan Dollar] and they require a separate visa for tourists to enter. the simplest way I can explain things: Taiwan is not China, even if their independence is not formally recognized by most of the world powers.

this is an extreme simplification of the island's history, and clearly a limited explanation based on my [probably biased] personal understanding. opinions on the subject most definitely vary. but I hope it explains the unique blend of cultures that have influenced Taiwan over the years, and gives you a bit of background.

your basic Taiwan facts

Taiwan resides north of the equator on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, slightly east of China, north of the Philippines, and southwest of Japan and Korea. it is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer. Taiwan is in the UTC + 8 time zone and does not follow daylight savings. the capital city is Taipei, the official language is Mandarin, and the population is just under 24 million. if there was a national dish - it would probably be beef noodle [though whether clear broth or spicy dark broth may never be agreed upon.] the date is listed year / month / day, typically using the ROC calendar year. since this system was established in 1912 [year one] that means 2015 is usually seen as 104.

English in Taiwan

while Mandarin is the official language, many people speak at least a little bit of English. most of the younger generation have grown up attending after-school English programs, or attended university in America. you will find more English in cities like Taipei, Hsinchu, and Kaohsuing, which have more international businesses and population. many public signs, the high speed rail, and Taipei's MRT are labeled in both Mandarin and English.

the short story is that in most situations you can get by with English and hand gestures. if a cash register doesn't have an electronic display to tell you the total, many cashiers will type numbers into a calculator and show you. but the best course of action is to assume that both everyone and no one understands English. what I mean by that is: don't be rude and expect someone to know English, but be polite when speaking because you never know when someone will understand you.

for another perspective, check out this article - intended for prospective expats but still relevant to tourists:  I want to move to Taiwan, but I don't speak Mandarin

attitude towards foreigners

this one is a little tricky - because each person has their own feelings and your experience as a tourist can vary greatly depending on who you encounter and what kind of traveler you are. generally speaking, Taiwan has a friendly and welcoming culture. if you treat others with kindness and respect, that is what you will likely receive in return. I can't guarantee you will have a 100% positive experience - you may even have an extremely negative incident occur. but that's just part of traveling, and part of interacting with the human population.

convenience store culture

Taiwan has more than 10,000 convenience stores. and they sell so much more than soft drinks and candy bars. most will offer ATMs, some have restrooms, seating areas, or even copy machines. you can order a taxi, ship packages, buy tickets for the train, concerts or sporting events. they carry basic toiletries and sometimes even clothing items. and the food selections are much better than in the US: from sushi to salad and sandwiches, cups of fruit and an assortment of Taiwan delicacies. personally, I prefer Family Mart. 7-11 is a close second, while the other brands [Hi-Life, OK Mart] are usually less appealing in their selections. if you find yourself in need of a cheap, quick meal or some water [or beer] you won't have to walk far to find a store.

the toilet situation

when traveling through Asia, this topic can't be avoided. Taiwan [especially in Taipei] seems to have a fair amount of western-style toilets even for public use. if you are in a newer building, a hotel or department store, MRT station or western chain restaurant you won't have a problem finding one. most homes and apartments in Taiwan have western style toilets. when I moved to Taiwan I went months before ever seeing a squat toilet. but they do exist here, and in some places are your only option.

if you want to avoid squatting, pay attention to the signs on the stall doors. most restrooms mark them with little picture plaques of what kind is inside. you can also cheat and use the handicapped stall. but really, squat toilets aren't that bad.

regardless of which way you go: I would advise carrying tissue packs just in case - some restrooms don't provide toilet paper, or keep only one roll near the entrance and you have to remember to grab before going into your stall. some restrooms do not have soap, so hand sanitizer would also be wise. public restrooms are widely available: train stations, parks, temples, etc will offer facilities [though they may not be the most clean or modern.] no matter where you go, please follow the instructions - some restrooms will ask you not to flush toilet paper and provide waste receptacles for use.

drinking water

I know people who have drunk the tap water without issue, but I wouldn't recommend it. even most locals I know drink only filtered or bottled water. it's completely safe to brush your teeth with and you shouldn't panic if you swallow some by accident. the tap water in Taipei is supposedly ok to drink, but who knows what's in the pipes. any time you spot a public drinking fountain it will be treated and the quality regulated, so feel free to refill your bottle. restaurants will only serve you drinkable water, and the ice will be ok too.

night markets and food

Taiwan is a foodie culture - but in an utterly unpretentious way. there are high end establishments on the island, but most people agree the best food is found in night markets and tiny shops. while you're here be sure to sample some classic dishes such as beef noodle, gua bao, stinky tofu, ji-pai, pineapple cakes, fish ball soup, xiao long bao, pearl milk tea, and shaved ice. if you want to know what's good - just look for the line of locals. [for specific restaurants, I refer you to a hungry girl's guide to Taipei.]

dining out in Taiwan

the first thing you have to understand about dining out in Taiwan is that this is a culture of "family style" eating. the ideal Taiwanese meal involves family and friends circled around the table, a dozen dishes, and small glasses of Taiwan beer which are refilled often. even at western restaurants you will see people splitting entrees, trying bites of every plate.

with that in mind: meals are not timed to come out together. and you just have to deal with it. person A's hamburger is going to come out before person B's salad and person C won't get their french fries until everyone else is finished eating. it's just the way it works here.

you should also note that Taiwan is not a country where you tip the wait staff. I've tried on occasion, and have been chased down and forced to accept my money back. if you are dining at a higher end restaurant they will add a service charge to your bill, usually 10%. a few places that cater to tourists have started adding a space on your credit card receipt for a tip, so you can use that if you like - but it's not required [or expected.] some restaurants will keep your bill on the table, crossing items off as they are delivered. others you may have to flag your waiter down for the check. usually you will pay up front at the register [and many times only in cash] but if you are unsure your waiter should direct you.

visiting temples in Taiwan

the scent of wafting incense and a riot of color awaits you at any of the dragon-topped Taoist temples in Taiwan. Buddhist and Confucian temples are less ornate, but no less stunning. you won't make it very far in your travels without spotting one - this island boasts the most temples per capita of any nation on the globe. temples in Taiwan are a photographer's dream [um, in case you hadn't noticed my obsession] and thankfully pictures are not offensive, so long as you are respectful of those worshipping.

museums and monuments

there's no shortage of cultural or historical museums in Taiwan. depending which city you're in, you can find museums featuring everything from Taiwanese aboriginal art, glass making, astronomy, Chinese antiquities, modern art, to postage stamps and drinking water. many of these museums will include English signage, though the translations may be a little... interesting. admission is usually cheap [less than 300 NT or $10 US] or sometimes free.

baseball fanaticism

Taiwan loves baseball. if you visit during the season I would highly recommend attending a game. the Chinese Professional Baseball League only has 4 teams right now, but they travel around all the stadiums on the island. the crowds are extremely loyal to their teams and spend the entire game chanting and cheering, usually with noisemakers and megaphones. the atmosphere is completely different than American baseball games - and a great way to see the usually reserved Taiwanese get rowdy.

hiking in Taiwan

the majority of Taiwan's land mass is unpopulated mountain. even in the largest city of Taipei, mountains are all around you. and the Taiwanese love to climb them. you will find extensive hiking trails on taller peaks, with over 100 mountains on the island over 3,000 feet. [most of these, however, require permits to climb.] most lower elevations near populated areas feature paved trails with stone steps. don't be surprised if you see an elderly man or woman speed past you while you make your climb... they probably take that trail every morning. the mosquitos can be bad [if you're someone like me who gets bit often] so wear bug spray, and always be cautious of wasps and venomous snakes.


one of the major sports on the island is cycling. routes can be found all around, both in and between cities, and some companies even offer bike tours that circle the island. many roads have designated bike lanes, while larger cities have often hundreds of kilometers of dedicated bike-only paths. Taipei, New Taipei City, and Taichung offer a bike sharing program called YouBike which allows you to rent bicycles for very reasonable rates. the bikes can be rented in one station and returned to any other location [over 150 stations in Taipei City alone] and the website or app will tell you how many bikes or parking spots are currently located at each station.

birds and butterflies

natives and visitors alike enjoy watching the birds and butterflies in Taiwan. there are over 500 species of birds recorded here, and many can be seen from parks even within Taipei city limits [try the Taipei Botanical Gardens or Guandu Nature Park.] while some butterflies stay on the island year-round, Taiwan is famous as a viewing spot for several major migrations. in some areas, the butterflies are so numerous that nets are set up over the highways to keep the insects from being damaged by traffic. even if you visit Taiwan for other reasons, keep your eyes peeled [especially November through March.] if you encounter a group of photographers in a park, take a peek where they are pointing their lenses and you might find an interesting creature.

this post will answer your questions including tips for what to expect when you visit Taiwan: dining out, hiking, cycling, night, markets and more. with advice on interacting with the locals, temple etiquette, using restrooms and drinking water, as well as a brief history of the island.

so why don't more people travel to Taiwan? 

I honestly don't know. this island seems to be Asia's best kept secret. but I do know that if you take a chance and visit, you're very likely to fall in love. it might be the dumplings, it might be the dragons... but Taiwan will steal a piece of your heart.

this post is the fourth in a series of tips for visiting Taiwan. for more information, please see:
part 1: a guide on what to pack
part 2: a guide on how to travel
part 3: a guide on where to go + what to see
part 4: a guide on what to expect [this post]

if you have any questions I haven't covered here, please feel free to let me know! there may end up being a part 5 / FAQ post at some point in the future.

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